For a person who spends a lot of their time growing and breeding vegetables I am pretty sceptical of their importance. The further you go back in agricultural history the less important they appear to have been. Staple crops were domesticated first with vegetables only starting to appear thousands of years later and long after tree crops. Where possible cultures usually preferred to harvest wild vegetables when they were available, but increasing populations and intensification of land use saw them gradually erased from the landscape, leading to greater incentive for cultivation. Eggplant was only domesticated in the 1st century BC. Broccoli is from around the same time in the Roman Empire. Staple crops are my main passion, so rationalising the return on investment of the vegetables I do grow is important for me. I can always munch on some wild weeds on the side if times get hard, but scrounging starch from an unmanaged and degraded landscape is a much harder challenge.
A hint of the role of vegetables in ancient societies can still be found in their names. Lettuce bears the latin name Lactuca sativa, the second part referring to saving, or promoting good health. Many plants now thought of as vegetables to be eaten by the plate full originated as plants considered more medicinal in their traits. Other plants with this species name include garlic, oats, cannabis and saffron. Other plants bear the species name officinalis in reference to being the official medical form, including asparagus, nasturtium, dandelion and ginger, along with many herbs. Dandelion is a good example of a plant shifting from herb to vegetable in current culture.
Vegetables have been a relatively minor component in the diet of most modern humans, increasing over time as fat and animal protein became more limited in response to an increasing proportion of carbohydrates. The modern mania for vegetables, where the logic goes “if a little is good for you then a lot must be miraculous” is quite curious to me. Thinking of them as medicinals, where the dose makes the poison and quality is more important than quantity makes more sense to me.
Lettuce is a crop I have been growing for many years and I am starting to seriously reconsider its place in my system. I thought I had a suitably hardy old strain called canasta that produces thick ruffled rosettes of lightly bronzed leaves that taste quite nice. After a few years of itself seeding vigorously that lured me into a false sense of security so I didn’t save seed, it disappeared from my garden one year. Our highly variable climate was probably behind the issue with seed failing to survive in the soil over summer, though I did also notice it was having trouble setting seed in spring due to a mildew on the flowers. This in turn I suspect might be due to a limiting mineral nutrient. I managed to resurrect the variety from a few very old seed found in a packet at the bottom of a drawer and grew a large crop again this year. But once again they look like they will fail to make seed this spring. Lettuce has a very shallow root system compared to most of my other crops, making it more vulnerable to dry spells. With our typically dry springs that means it can have trouble completing its life cycle. Wet springs aren’t much better as the seed often rot as they mature.
A much more useful alternative to lettuce in my system is endive. This is another daisy but from a different branch of the family tree, with large blue flowers in contrast to lettuces tiny yellow ones. It is traditionally a biennial in cooler climates but flowers in late spring from an autumn sowing. Unlike lettuce it has a substantial tap root, allowing it to access water during dry spells. This also means the whole head can be harvested, leaving the taproot to regrow for a second harvest later. That trick is invaluable since by midwinter my garden is too dry to start new seedlings most years. I have settled on the broadleaf forms since the frizzled types trap so much debris in their crowns that they are a pain to clean off. Unlike the fluffy seed of lettuce that must be harvested before it blows away, endive produces tiny seed packed into dense heads that must be crushed with considerable force to release them. A sturdy boot on concrete works well.
Originally I planned to grow both crops, with the lettuce giving a quicker harvest in autumn while allowing the endive to continue on for harvest in winter and spring. Looking at the recent performance anxiety of lettuce when it comes to producing seed I am re-evaluating if I want to grow them at all. Endive grows only a little slower at the start of the season, tastes nicer (I like a little bitter), is more pest tolerant, drought tolerant, regrows from harvest and damage, has a much longer harvest window and can seed and self seed much more reliably than lettuce. Thinning excess seedlings of endive gives a crop before lettuce is mature as well. Managing only a single species would also make seed saving a lot easier. There is an optimum level of management complexity between a pure monoculture and growing everything under the sun.
Not all is lost for lettuce as I will keep tinkering at the edges with new varieties to see if anything gets through my filters. This year I am trialling a variety called “lion tongue” that might be “deer tongue”. I planted it too late to get a fair assessment of its flavour potential, but it is from a distinct lineage that potentially has a stronger root system than more modern forms developed with constant artificial irrigation in mind. If it seeds well this year I will see if it can complement endive as outlined above. If not I will probably try the odd new variety now and then see if any take off, if only for the excitement of growing something new. Because lettuce self pollinates it only takes one good plant to found a new line, so it is easy to play with in a less serious way than outcrossing crops that demand more genetic diversity for long term performance. If not lettuce, then any old green thing will save me instead, and I will save myself the bother of persisting with a crop that doesn’t repay my efforts.
2 thoughts on “Lettuce Not?”
I grew the one you call Lion’s tongue for year in Brisbane, originally got the seeds from BOG (Brisbane organic growers). Same happened, 1 year they failed to set seed, then I lost it. Hence the importance of having a local group of seed savers to pool their efforts and create resilience in the ability to survive unusual season
I have seen an east timorese strain of lettuce that is likely a hybrid with one of the wild species. Not convinced it will be all that edible. Celtuce might be worth a try but eating lettuce stems doesnt sound that appealing. Good to hear it isnt just me that has problems with lettuce seeding some years. I might need to produce enough seed for several years when we have a good season. At least it produces lots when it does work and it stores for a long time.